Our Modern Euthyphro Dilemma

Does god make his commandments base on what is right, or is what is right based on his commandments? This is the Euthyphro dilemma, and it has boggled theologians and moral philosophers alike for literally millenia

The dilemma is supposed to challenge believers in divine command theory, but it has relevance for modern secular moral theory as well. This is because the original dialogue between Socrates and Euthyphro was not really about the nature of god, but about the nature of normative authority more generally. By being constant through time and space and separate from human particularity, God simply reflects the idealized universality and generality which we seek in our principals of justice.

In lieu of god, secular moral philosophy from Kant on has been trying to somehow leverage sureness back into our moral sense through convoluted transcendental arguments. Such efforts usually involve the metaphysical construction of an “ideal self” in some ideal scenario behaving in ideal ways to which we must all rationally assent. Our secular Euthyphro dilemma thus becomes: Are our abstract moral theories based on what is right, or is what is right based on our abstract moral theories? Against any Kantian construction, the dilemma is no less powerful as when levied against divine command.


Take 20th century Kantian philosopher John Rawls, for example. His concept of the “original position” asks us to imagine ourselves standing outside of society bereft of any knowledge of our personal identity, including our conception of a good life. Behind this veil of ignorance, he argued, we’d all rationally agree to an egalitarian society in which there was the greatest benefit for the least advantaged.

With this idealized social contract, Rawls’ goal is to establish a formal derivation of political authority in order to justify a particular macro-distributive end. But what appears to be an innocuous thought experiment is on closer inspection a series of arbitrary and inconceivable stipulations. After all, what is left of a self after its identity has been stripped away? How can a purely instrumental rationality even motivate a choice, much less reveal risk preferences? Why does the nation state set the boundary of social justice? Even taking the exercise at face value, the construct fails to establish a meta-ethical bridge to true normativity because it merely pushes the prescriptive element onto an unfounded imperative to act according to one definition of rationality.

To do Rawls justice, I should add that he was aware of all this and so in addendum wrote hundreds of pages of tedious conceptual scaffolding. This guarantees the incompleteness of my rough sketch, however the flaw with constructing a Kantian normative architecture lies not in the design specifics or even the level of detail, but in the very idea that normative authority can be grounded via ethical autoCAD. With sufficient prodding all Kantian constructions invariably implode under their unnatural abstract formalism. Indeed, examples span the political spectrum to include Kant inspired libertarians, whose invocations of the non-aggression principal are similarly void of content, and become contradictory fast once any substance is added.

Thus when contemporary Kantians debate it winds up being a symmetric game of mutually assured deconstruction. Distributive justice types are able to accurately reveal the inconsistencies of their opponents, while procedural justice types make a science of egalitarian absurdities. In the end, beneath the twin rubble piles that result, there remains only the meek voices of special pleading.

If what is right is not based on abstract moral theory, then normative authority must be antecedent to our modern moral philosophy. In later posts I will try to explain how normativity arises from the bottom up, from the particular to the general, rather than the other way around. As Nietzsche famously argued, relinquishing god as the locus of normative authority was essential to opening new possibilities of human development. Today, the same should be said of all secular moral frameworks which give normative authority the same god-like unity of voice, contra the polycentrism we actually observe. So say it with me:

Kant is dead. Kant remains dead. And we have killed him.

6 thoughts on “Our Modern Euthyphro Dilemma

  1. The Euthyphro dilemma sounds very silly to me. Unless I’m misunderstanding something, OF COURSE the decision to move from A to B must precede the plan for how to get there.

    And that’s what Commandments are. They’re steps for following a plan, like “Head North 1/2 mile then turn left”, except instead of helping you navigate a physical space they help you navigate human life and existence.

    So just as you can’t give people directions to a place unless they tell you where they’re going, you can’t give them Commandments unless you know how you want them to live and what you want them to achieve.

    To believe that rightness comes from commandments, you have to assume the commandments were randomly generated and rightness post-hoc defined. Well maybe God is running thousands of experimental worlds, each with its own set of commandments, just to see what happens, but that’s not exactly consistent with the standard perception of him.

  2. Awesome entry! Constructivist irrealism is certainly dead in the water, any person attracted to it should take their intuitions to their rightful conclusion and embrace realism (Russ Shafer-Landau wields the Euthyphro dilemma devastatingly against constructivism as well). They can even hang onto their Kantian normative theory by looking to Robert Audi.

    1. Thanks! My view is that the problem runs deeper than simply constructivist meta-ethics. It’s symptomatic of a deeper problem with the theory of semantics implies by representational theories of knowledge. Taking them at face value, I think Humean moral and epistemological skepticism is inescapable. I increasingly believe that the only way to salvage normativity is to consider other semantic theories that don’t fall for the representionalist fallacy. The most robust of these alternatives is the school of pragmatism owing itself to Hegel’s early critiques of Kant.

      1. I think expressivism is the logical conclusion of representationalism. Realism fails because morality comes down to a set of imperatives that we shout at each other. Sometimes nakedly, and sometimes by turning expressive modes into assertive if-then style modes.

        On the other hand this moral skepticism might be avoided by denying the representationalist starting point. See this video for more http://youtu.be/WtFS7Or-X_E

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